Monk versus Monk

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Monk versus Monk

Chinese ban on Indian-trained Buddhist monks reflects its double standards on religion

For all the optics about consonance and moving forward between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi, there is always an irritant thorn that pokes the flesh from beneath the velvet gloves. China is now challenging the spiritual and civilisational connect that has been the template of Sino-Indian congruence, that of Buddhism, more a practical life philosophy than ritualistic religion itself. But Beijing believes that our Buddhist monks are unfit to teach a cultural philosophy in China for they may encourage “separatist” thinking and the bordering Provinces might be lured into the Tibetan Buddhist school of the Dalai Lama. A county in Sichuan Province has banned our monks and is even giving patriotic lessons to aspirants, strictly laying down a teaching code, and putting them through layers of tests and debates to ascertain if they are in sync with Chinese imperatives. Although Buddhism spread to China from India, with their monks like Tien Tai propagating it with passion, it did mutate to local specifics and schools under the patronage of royal dynasties. And gained a stature big enough to influence socio-politics. Early monks even resorted to Daoism to carry the message to the grassroots. To the extent that over time China fully appropriated the Buddhist legacy on its terms, the fact of Buddha being born in India regarded as plain incidental. So no monk is considered worth his instruction till he has cleared the degree of Chinese Buddhism.

The distrust about Tibetan Buddhism is so acute that China has erected its own system of Buddhist hierarchy, propping up a Panchen Lama as a reincarnated Bodhisattva with powers to identify the next Dalai Lama, who is expected to propagate the Chinese worldview. Yet this imposition has hardly worked. All over Tibet, the Dalai Lama is revered privately in homes, his picture stashed away with family heirlooms by common people, who may swear by the Panchen Lama in public. Realising the cultural contiguity that Buddhism imparts to Southeast and South Asia, China has even made Buddhism a part of its imperialist Belt and Road initiative. Linking the historical journeys of Buddhist monks along the Silk Route, it is even funding and promoting restoration of stupas and shrines at home and in Myanmar, Laos and other countries that share its southernmost border. It hopes this cultural advocacy will build bridges with people and help it gain acceptability for its economic overlordship of the region. But what China forgets is that the true practitioner of Buddhism is unconcerned by limitations and territoriality and is seeking karmic retribution rather than nurturing political ambition. Persecution has been part of Buddhism’s journey against established orders and its votaries have even taken a stand against cultish injustice meted out to them. In their search for absolution, they can even challenge threats that deter their mission. And when they are big enough a demographic to influence political discourse, like in Thailand and Myanmar, they have acted as a unified bloc and even resorted to violence. With the Dalai Lama leaving Tibet  and settling in India in 1959, that counter-plank has been quite diluted by Chinese machinery. Besides integrating Tibet will not be about religion but about mainstreaming it with mainland advantages. China must realise that.

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